Last week’s tragic crash of Scaled Composites’ Space Ship Two, the prototype short-hop orbital vehicle designed for Virgin Galactic, is a sober reminder that getting to space is, quite literally, rocket science; more than crossing oceans by boat, more than bisecting hemispheres by jet, travel to space is very hard and very hazardous.
When combined with the explosion and total loss of the unmanned Antares supply rocket, less than a week earlier, pundits are naturally predicting future hard times for commercial-based space rocketry. But that’s actually okay; for every setback is an opportunity to find the mistakes and improve the science and engineering, which will save lives in the future. It’s also an unsubtle reminder that space is never to be taken for granted.
But it’s not a reason to abandon our efforts to get to space. If anything, it’s a reason to rethink why we want to go to space.
Virgin Galactic, for instance, wants to provide a way for the richest people in humanity to part with their millions for what is essentially a joy ride. (Keep in mind, we are not talking about something akin to eco-tourism, where a portion of the tourist proceeds goes into preserving the ecosystem being visited. Though tourists may enjoy the view from up there, every dime paid to Virgin Galactic stays in Virgin Galactic’s coffers.) The crash of Space Ship Two will probably set back Richard Branson’s plans along those lines, albeit temporarily. But Branson’s plans are more showy and capitalistic than practical, affecting only himself… and there are much better reasons to go to space besides tourism.
Keeping the International Space Station functioning, for instance: The ISS, our primary orbital presence, carries on experiments vital to our understanding how various things, including the human body, can survive and thrive in space. And the results of those experiments could lead to new products and developments, including new manufacturing and fabrication processes that may be able to take advantage of the microgravity, hard vacuum, variable temperatures and radiation spectra available outside Earth’s atmosphere. New and better medicines, stronger and more versatile materials, better sensors, more efficient computers, better understanding of our planet and the Solar System, and many other things, stand to benefit from the advances possible from orbit.
And the lessons we learn from orbit will improve our knowledge of living in non-Earth environments… a very valuable lesson to learn, because someday, we may need to live in such non-Earth environments for extended periods, up to—potentially—forever. If, at some point in the future, Earth becomes inhabitable due to some natural (or man-made) disaster, a random strike from an asteroid, or a burst of gamma radiation from a dying star, etc, Mankind may need to be able to leave this planet and set up permanent shop elsewhere, or perish. The sooner we learn how to live in closed environments and hostile locations, therefore, the more likely we are to be able to survive such a catastrophe.
At some point, maybe soon, we may begin expanding our orbital presence with additional space platforms, perhaps carrying on expanded versions of experiments started on the ISS (or MIR, or even Skylab before them). Or maybe, the orbital platform will be put to specific use, say, setting up and operating a manufacturing facility that produces some valuable product better than it can be created in Earth’s atmosphere and gravity well. Or operating as a base for other space-based tasks, like launching satellites, cleaning up orbital debris, monitoring the solar system for incoming asteroids, or constructing space-based craft that will someday ply the Solar System and even beyond. An orbital platform (or a series of them) could provide an invaluable service to those living on the surface of the Earth… and may help us immensely when it’s time for us to leave.
Examination of the Space Ship Two malfunction will provide us further information on engine systems, safety systems connected to the engines, and the capsule itself. That will be added to the data compiled from other past missions, including the accidents that have resulted in everything from hardship to loss of life. All of that data will help us design and improve future rockets and engine systems, making the odds of our success in space that much better.
Industry, of course, weighs benefits versus risks in order to do business. When the risks are low enough versus the potential profit, industry will be ready to do business. Improved knowledge about engine and safety systems, therefore, will duly lower that risk and pave the way for industry to move into space and get busy.
So, let’s hope our efforts to achieve a stronger presence in orbit are not put off by these recent accidents, but informed by them instead. And perhaps more importantly, let’s hope that the Virgin Galactic crash clues some people to the fact that, while it’s important to go to space, there are much more important reasons to risk human lives than mere tourism.